Twitter can be used by politicians as a means of keeping voters up-to-date on events and legislation, interacting outside the confines of the constituency. It also offers a glimpse of those we place in power as 'human'.
However, problems can arise. Comments can be taken outside of context, or a sausage-fingered intern reports the wrong information to the collective glee of the media.
What makes Twitter such a minefield as a political tool?
Twitter has no nuance of tone, no pitch, and no body language.
Making sweeping generalisations, as seen with the Diane Abbot affair, is a recipe for disaster. Her comment was thus:
"White people love playing 'divide & rule' We should not play their game #tacticasoldascolonialism"
Whether the British member of Parliament (MP) was purely stating the fact that white people within the West benefited from colonialism or not is a moot point. Using Twitter to try and explain complex issues is a risky choice for information exchange mediums, and a political figure using it in this manner reflects poor judgement.
Twitter is made for the purpose of rapid information exchange. It's not built for complicated discussions, for debates on the different nuances of politics or history. It is used mainly by people promoting services or goods, or telling us what they enjoyed for breakfast in the morning.
Anything you say or do has the potential to be taken out of context. Not only that, but it can be immediately seen by a community not restricted by country borders, and nor do they have to be within current hearing range. An international community can both take offence to a tweet immediately, or make a mockery of it.
Once one person has made a screenshot of that poorly judged tweet, the damage is done. It has the potential to create the same impact as a controversial press release or an off-hand comment snagged by the press -- such as former president George W. Bush winking at the Queen.
Everything is public domain. In the same manner, you can be quoted on it, and the tweet can be replicated. Politicians are known for their tenacity in general when it comes to carefully rehearsed statements to the press, and coordinated television appearances -- but in Twitter terms, this training hasn't always been implemented.
Mistakes are made
On Twitter, you will be carefully watched, as it provides an avenue for people to keep updated on political affairs -- but also to mock you when you make a mistake. We all can admit it -- the times you hear a political gaffe can be comedy gold. It's not only individuals that keep tabs on your actions, so do journalists.
140-character statements can be a powerful tool to instantaneously released information to an international community. However, switch a vowel or use the incorrect phrase, and a politician becomes the butt of jokes across a country and beyond.
The leader of the UK opposition Ed Miliband MP was left shamefaced after chastising Diane Abbott for her political tweeting gaffe. Several days later, a tweeted tribute from his account to the late star of Blockbusters turned into a country-wide hilarity:
"Sad to hear that Bob Holness has died. A generation will remember him fondly from Blackbusters".
The offending tweet was removed within minutes, but not before screen grabs and photos had been circulated by gleeful viewers. It wasn't long before the hashtag #edmilibandgameshows appeared on the social networking site.
In the same way that live interviews can be a minefield for causing offence, social networks can contain the same risk for politicians. As a medium for rapid data exchange, learning to communicate in 140-characters can be something of an art form. Do it poorly, and politicians throw themselves to the mercies of the press.
Personal branding and accountability
A public figure's Twitter account, once verified, becomes part of a personal brand not only as an individual, but also as an aspect of what you represent.
Twitter was not born in order to become a political tool. The purpose is not to spread propaganda, which via scanning political profiles you can see in full swing -- generally around election time. Politicans may want to consider whether the tool is a sensible option for them to utilize, and if so, keep it out of reach of other people.
Simply put, if you are given the role of a public figure, you are required to act accordingly. Bleating that a tweet was the fault of a junior intern is not enough to justify it, as the content is directed under your brand. As such, insensible tweets reflect on what is represented, and you as an individual.
The politician is held accountable, not the junior -- as they transferred power in the first place. That is, of course, if the intern was responsible in the first place, and it isn't a means of damage control by apportioning blame on others.
Anything you place on a social network is public information, and under your name, holds you accountable for the content. Cry "intern!", cry "out of context!", but you are still held responsible -- and may be mocked or face serious consequences because of it.